Adapt or Die: Leadership Principles from an American General
by Rick Lynch
No Money Growing up as a kid in Hamilton, Ohio, potato soup was the highlight meal of my week. Needless to say, my family had no money. Our household included not only me, my mom, my dad, and my younger brother, but since Dad had been married previously, I had two half brothers who were there sometimes as well—and all together we rarely had a nickel between us. Like a lot of other parents in our small city, Mom and Dad both worked shift work at the paper mill: seven to three, three to eleven, or eleven to seven, day in and day out, and despite working all those hours, neither of them brought home much of a paycheck. They provided for the family as best they could. I’m not complaining. I’m eternally grateful for their hard work, but there was simply nothing left over at the end of the week. That posed certain challenges. It didn’t matter that things cost less then. It didn’t matter that my parents could give me a dollar to run to the store for a half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and a pack of cigarettes, and I’d bring ’em back change. We were still barely scraping by. It was clear to me by the age of thirteen that if I wanted to have nice school clothes or have my own transportation or be able to go to McDonald’s with my buddies, Mom and Dad weren’t going to hand me a ten-dollar bill and say, “Go have a nice time.” So at thirteen I went looking for work. That was a pretty big turning point and a springboard into many life lessons learned. Even before that I was ambitious. I worked on my cousin’s dairy farm in Indiana, pulling in sixty cents an hour as a kid. But the first real job I found as a teenager was painting houses. There was a guy who worked with Mom at the paper mill who had a side business painting houses, inside and outside. So I threw myself into it and started putting money away for the things I wanted. Over the next few years I migrated from that to the restaurant business. I was a busboy and then a grill cook—like a lot of kids. And by the time I was a senior in high school I was working as the assistant manager of a pet store in Hamilton.
Nobody ever said, “Hey, Rick, you gotta get a job.” It was just clear to me that if I didn’t get a job, I wasn’t going to have what I wanted. And if I give my parents credit for anything, especially my mom, it’s instilling this profound work ethic: Working hard is the right thing to do, and if you ever find yourself not working hard, then you’re probably not in the right position. There are people in life (and a lot of people in today’s America) who would look at my thirteen-year-old self and see the whole situation as something negative. As if it were a burden that I had to get a job. But I didn’t see it that way then, and I certainly don’t see it that way now. The fact that my parents didn’t have money and didn’t hand me everything I wanted wasn’t an obstacle. It was an opportunity—an opportunity of a lifetime, because it set me up for a lifetime of success. When I got my first job, I got my first sense of independence. For the first time in my life I wasn’t relying on my mom or dad. I had my own money. I could buy my own clothes. I could go to McDonald’s whenever I wanted without relying on anyone else’s handouts. And when I turned sixteen I bought my own motorcycle: a Yamaha 175 Enduro. That’s how I got back and forth to school, and it’s also how I got back and forth to work in the restaurant business. Many years later, when I became a lieutenant in the army, I read an article on career development that pointed to one very important trait of success: Do every job superbly. I already knew that firsthand because of my early work experience as a teenager, and because it was something my mom taught me. Regardless of whether you’re a house painter, a dishwasher, a grill cook, or a lieutenant, do the best job you can and you’ll always be successful, Mom used to tell me. Of course, the article also said that another aspect of success is to make sure people know that you’re doing a good job: Be visible and widely known! That would get easier for me over time. I wasn’t much of a people person early on. I was more of an introvert. But in time I would grow to enjoy talking to people and getting to know everyone, no matter where I worked.
Seeing opportunities instead of obstacles is about having the right mind-set. For me, beginning at age thirteen, part of that was a realization that your current set in life does not have to be permanent. You have a choice, and you can change whatever it is that’s holding you back. You can make those changes with a positive attitude, and as a result of that positive attitude you can work through it. If you don’t do that—and unfortunately I see this all the time—you can fall into a state of resignation: “It is what it is. It ain’t gonna get any better than this.” Think of the state of the nation these days, and this overwhelming sense of resignation that’s swept across America. People talk as if everything just is what it is: Unemployment is the way it is, the deficit’s the way it is, governmental paralysis is the way it is, and there’s nothing we can do about any of it. That’s letting the obstacle blur the opportunity. I go back to Joshua 1:9 all the time: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” That conviction and determined spirit alone gives me the strength and courage to plow on today. But I didn’t have the Bible and those teachings in my life when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t get that until I started going to church almost twenty years later. So where did I get that conviction and spirit from? I think I got it from my mom. I love my dad, but he wasn’t the nurturer. He was the guy with the belt. Mom was the nurturer: caring and loving, with an infectious laugh. Her name was Dorothy, but everyone called her Dotie. It was a fitting nickname because, in fact, she doted on my brother and me all the time. She doted on us so much that it was a major bone of contention between her and my dad. He would always complain that she was “trying to spoil those kids.” Maybe she was trying to spoil us, by spending more time with us. Every year she would go into debt to buy us Christmas presents, and then we’d see her work even harder just to pay o" that debt. Because of that extra time and affection she showed, she has proven to be the most influential person in our lives. I never saw my mom complain. The lot in life that she had was good enough for her—even if she knew it wasn’t good enough for my brother or me. She wanted more for us, and she made that clear. To be fair, so did my dad.
My father, Calvin, graduated from the seventh grade, and that’s as far as he got in school because he didn’t think he needed any more than that. Mom graduated from the eleventh grade, so neither one of them were high school graduates. But Mom was the gal who always advocated that we needed to get straight A’s if we wanted to get ahead in life. She pushed us in her kind and gentle fashion. Dad, on the other hand—if you didn’t get straight A’s, you had some explaining to do when you got home. It was that level of discipline with him: Even though he only had a seventh-grade education, he wouldn’t have tolerated anything but the best from my brother and me. It’s funny to think about, but the roots of your upbringing run deep. There is something that happened there in Hamilton, Ohio, in all of those lessons and all of that pushing from my parents during my formative years that really carried me to where I am today. There was something in all of it that gave me the foundation of optimism—this steadfast belief that I could overcome obstacles and turn them into opportunities, every time. Colin Powell says, “Optimism is a combat multiplier.” I believe that’s true. When you look at lists of famous people’s quotations, especially famous leaders, you see a lot about optimism. Abraham Lincoln said, “A man is about as happy as he makes his mind up to be.” I believe that’s true, too. As you’re confronted with di!cult circumstances, your outlook is everything. Your outlook is going to help you overcome the obstacles and turn them into opportunities. Every time. But you need to have a positive attitude—otherwise you risk shutting down. Otherwise you miss seeing the opportunity that’s right there in front of you, or asking for advice that just might lead you to an opportunity you never knew existed.